CSTA Classroom Science

NGSS – Putting the STEM in STEM

By Peter A’Hearn

“Our proposed design uses waves with a frequency of 5,000 Hz to detect the tumor. We are getting our best resolution of the tumor when we are 7 cm away, which is one wavelength of the sound waves that we are using. Our proposed App would include a set of wheels for smooth tracking and image the body as a grid to help determine location.”

Is this an episode of Shark Tank? No this was a group of teachers at the Project Prototype* 2015 Summer Institute. Project Prototype is a California Math Science Partnership Grant in the Coachella Valley focused on the integration of science and engineering through the NGSS. Secondary science teachers were focusing on the middle and high school standards on Waves and their Applications in Information Technology. The week began with a visit to the Desert Regional Medical Center where teachers got to learn about and experience the different uses of waves in medical imaging technology from the ultrasound used to view soft tissue, to X-rays, CAT scans, MRI, and PET. A highlight was the Stereotaxis Machine used to visualize and guide a catheter to a stroke in a patient’s brain.


The STEM movement aims to teach students how to use the related fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math to solve problems and access careers in high paying, high skill fields. There are many varied opportunities for kids to be involved in STEM, from after school robotics clubs, Career Technical Education (CTE) pathways, and special STEM and Engineering elective programs like Project Lead the Way and Engineer Your World. These are powerful programs, but they do not reach all kids.

How can we make sure that ALL kids get some rich learning about how Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math work together? The answer is that STEM is built into NGSS. NGSS has strong STEM connections built in with its engineering-specific Performance Expectations (PEs), the many PEs at all grade levels that incorporate engineering design and thinking, and also through the Science and Engineering Practice of “Using Mathematical and Computational Thinking.”

Lots of teachers (me included) saw that one and thought, “Oh, I already use math – I do that already.” So, if you haven’t read that one carefully, go back to the NRC’s Framework. It’s asking for computers: Computers to run algorithms, computers to handle large data sets, computers to run simulations. All of which are important parts of how real life scientists and engineers do their jobs.


Back at the institute, the teachers used long springs to find the mathematical relationship between the frequency and wavelength of standing waves. They were then introduced to Anechoic, a free iPhone App developed by Dr. William Grover of the Department of Bioengineering at the Bourns College of Engineering, University of California, Riverside. Anechoic uses both the speaker and the microphone of an iPhone to send out a sound at a certain wavelength and record its echo, like a sonar. The teachers used Anechoic to explore how sound waves interact with various materials.

In exploring the App, teachers discovered that the properties of the waves used strongly influences the way the waves interacted with different materials. They also discovered the wave property of interference.


Teachers then had to put themselves into the role of engineers trying to develop an iPhone based device that could visualize a tumor using sound waves. The “tumor” was an old compact disk hidden behind a black cloth screen, and the teachers used the Anechoic app to visualize the tumor with sound. This led to the “Shark Tank” Proposal described above. Teams needed to describe the waves used mathematically as well as how they worked to visualize the tumor. They needed to address a list of criteria and constraints for real world medical devices in the design and explain how they would further develop the device if they were funded.

The group took some time to look at how programming in the Python language can be used to take a huge raw data set and turn it into an easy to understand visual display. A sound-recording app like Anechoic makes 44,000 sound measurements per second, so it can generate very large data sets very quickly. Data like this is virtually impossible to analyze without a computer, and the teachers saw firsthand how a simple Python program can perform this analysis. They saw that with small changes to the code, they can create many different ways to look at the Anechoic data sets to study different aspects of the signal. We were running short on time, but wished we could have had opportunities to explore this rich subject further.


The week ended by bringing the learning back to the hospital context. Teams of teachers were put into the role of hospital administrators who had to decide which medical imaging technologies to purchase given a limited budget. This engaging lesson comes from a new middle school curriculum from STC.

Hopefully this summer learning can be an example of how the real world context of STEM can give meaning and purpose to science learning. The convergence of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math is where many of our student’s bright futures lie. NGSS is the vehicle that will get them there. This will require hard work by teachers and students, some big shifts in how we think science learning happens, and lots of creative work designing curriculum and resources.


*Project Prototype is a partnership between Coachella Valley USD, Palm Springs USD, The UCR Bourns School of Engineering, CSU San Bernardino, and the College of the Desert. Community partners include the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, SMART Education, The Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert, Linked Learning and others. It is a California Math Science Partnership (CaMSP) funded by the California Department of Education.

Pete A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is region 4 director for CSTA.



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